When I was a kid growing up in Michigan, my dad, who was a pastor was invited every summer to lead the music at our denomination’s state camp meeting.
All of the churches in the state would gather at a campground, and we would have church services and activities. It was a fun time for me as a kid because I got to sleep in an RV and be around my church friends all week.
There was one church service this particular summer where I experienced something that would forever alter the way that I looked at God.
I was told something by someone with good intentions, but they were taking scripture out of context, trying to get a response from me. And it got a response from me, but not the response they were hoping for.
I remember it like it was yesterday. The pastor was teaching a lesson about sin, talking about how we chase all the wrong things in our lives, and if we don’t stop chasing them, they'll ruin us. And I sat there in that auditorium, and I felt God beginning to do something in my heart. I started thinking through a lot of my behaviors as a kid. How I was often disobedient to my parents. How I lied sometimes. How I cheated on my homework at school and how I wasn't always as kind as I should be to the people in my life.
And then the pastor said this, “And in spite of those things in your life, Jesus loves you, wants a relationship with you, and wants to help you be a better person.” And I began crying there in my seat in that auditorium that evening. God was working on me.
Then he completely changed gears, and said to the crowd, “I'm going to pray now, and as I do, I don't want anyone bowing their heads. I want everyone's head up and everyone looking around. And if you’d like to give your life to Jesus tonight, I want you to stand up while everyone is looking.”
And then he stuck the knife in even deeper. He said, “Jesus taught that if you deny him before men, that he will deny you before his Father in heaven.” (He was quoting the gospel of Matthew). The service up to that point was so beautiful. It was drawing me in and making me consider my life and my choices, and I was ready to respond. Then he said this, and I shut down. And as all of these people around me began to stand up, I just sat there, hunched over, crying in my seat.
And this message of love that brought me to the point of considering faith for the first time was instantly turned into one of compulsion and pressure, like a salesperson whose only goal was to close a deal. And I went home that summer feeling as if God would never love me again. I denied God, and now God would deny me.
So, evangelism. It's a loaded word for a great many of us.
- Maybe when you think of the word, you think of TV preachers or giant revival services in a big tent or a stadium.
- Maybe you think of a preacher on the corner screaming at people about Heaven and Hell and morality and sin.
- Maybe you’ve had an experience as I did as a kid in that auditorium.
But the truth is that evangelism is none of those things. The word, evangelism is a beautiful word. It is a word of hope and promise and invitation void of anything even close to pressure or compulsion.
The word evangelism simply means, “one who brings good news.”
What if that’s true? What if that’s as complex as it gets? What if evangelism has absolutely nothing to do with getting people to believe something? What if it’s something different than that?
The book of Acts, says this:
"Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
- Acts 16:1-5 -
Why did Timothy get circumcised? It says it right there in the text. Timothy got circumcised so that he might be able to be heard by his Mother's people. Timothy didn't have to get circumcised. He did it because this is what it took for his mother's culture to be able to hear him. I'll spare you the gory details of circumcision, but there's a reason that we circumcise babies instead of grownups.
Timothy paid a high price here!
In another passage from First Corinthians, The Apostle Paul writes this:
"I have become all things to all people so I could save some of them in any way possible. I do all this because of the good news, and so I can share in its blessings."
- 1 Corinthians 9 -
In each of these passages, we see this thing called evangelism at work. What’s more, we see that evangelism is not about getting people to believe something. It is about us becoming something. It’s not about others changing to meet our religious standards. It’s about us changing so that we can meet people where they are. And when we change, people see it. And that is enough.
It’s what First Peter is trying to get across when it says,
"If with heart and soul you’re doing good, do you think you can be stopped? Even if you suffer for it, you’re still better off. Don’t give it a second thought. Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention on Christ. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy."
- 1 Peter 3:15 -
Are we living in such a way that it evokes questions from people about what we believe? In fact, I’d go as far to say, that if we’re really practicing this thing called evangelism as it truly is, our words have very, very little to do with it.
That passage says that if we’re willing to become what we need to become to love and serve people where they are, that people will ask us about it if and when they become curious.
It’s why St. Francis said,
“Preach the good news to all people. Use words if necessary.”
- St. Francis of Assisi
Our faith is not solely about our own life experience. God wants to use your life to love and befriend other people in such a genuine way that their only response can be, “Where does that come from?”
It requires nothing of your hearers. It requires something of you. To live in a way that is so kind, so generous, and so loving that people ask “Why?”
Chameleons are interesting creatures. They can take on the color of their surroundings so that they can become a part of them.
A chameleon doesn’t cease being a chameleon when it turns brown like a branch. It doesn’t stop being a chameleon when it turns red like a rose. It doesn’t betray itself and cease to be what it is when it changes color. It becomes a part its surroundings.
And evangelism is a lot like that. It’s not about being something that we’re not. It’s about the change that takes place in us because we love people and we want to be a part of their lives.
And for we people of faith, this can look like many things.
It looks like softening our views on some things and being less dogmatic.
It looks like listening to people in a world that’s too busy to hear them.
It looks like letting go of our fears and our comforts and making our own security and safety the prime reason for our lives and our faith.
The people of the world are waiting for someone like that to show up in their lives.
You work with them. You go to school with them. You see them when you drop your kids off at soccer practice. You walk by them every day on the way to work. You go to happy hour with them.
This world is filled with people who are still curious about God. It's just that they're often presented with a phantasm.